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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Board games (or bored games)

When The Daughter was four, we started getting her into board games. Of course, we started with the "Big Two" starter games: CandyLand and Chutes&Ladders.

Both of these games are race-type games in which the object is to be the first person to reach a certain spot with their game piece, and both games involve very simplistic game play.

In CandyLand, the game "route" is a path consisting of brightly colored squares that repeat the same color pattern over and over again: Orange, purple, yellow, blue, pink, green, and then orange again. There are also a number of spaces decorated with pictures of candy, and a handful of spaces where one's progress is blocked. One moves in CandyLand by drawing cards from a deck. These cards are printed with colored squares as well, so if you draw a card with a blue square on it, you move to the next blue square in front of you on the path. There are also several cards with two colored squares, allowing you to move two spots of that color, and there are cards matching the "foodie" squares. Draw one of those, and you move to the corresponding square on the board, whether that square is in front of you or long behind you. (On the "blocking" squares mentioned above, if you land on one, you are required to remain in place until you draw a specific color, noted on the game board.)

Now, with Chutes&Ladders, one starts at the bottom of a grid of squares that are numbered 1 through 100, and one moves by spinning a spinner and moving the appropriate number of spaces, forward across one row, then up to the next row and back again, in roughly the same manner that the collection plate is passed at church. However, occasionally one encounters a "ladder", whereby one scoots from a square in one row to a square on some row above the current one; or one lands upon a "chute", whereby one is plopped back down a row or two (or three or four). There's a fairly creepy moral dimension to Chutes&Ladders, though, as the chutes and the ladders depict little pictorial morality plays. At the top of one chute, there might be a little picture of a kid standing on top of a chair to reach the cookie jar, and then at the bottom you'll find the same kid sitting on the floor, chair having fallen out from under him, backside aching, and the cookie jar in pieces. The ladders are accompanied by pictures of good behavior being rewarded. It's all very strange.

But even so, Chutes&Ladders is quite a bit more fun than CandyLand, for one reason: there's a much greater element of chance involved. You can't control the spinner (well, you could, but if you're cheating at Chutes&Ladders, then the jig is up for you and there's probably a six-day job as a Washington Post blogger in your future). In CandyLand, however, there's virtually no chance involved. Once the deck is shuffled and game play begins, the fates are pretty much sealed, and all you're doing is seeing how the cards have dictated that this particular game is going to work out. The only chance comes in the event that the game exhausts the entire deck, in which case one has to reshuffle. But that's it. For a game about wandering through the carefree land where all is literally sweets and sunshine, there's an odd sense of fatalism about CandyLand.

We don't really play these games anymore. Currently The Daughter enjoys Monopoly (in the Star Wars Saga edition that I bought last year, and worth the price just for the cast iron game pieces), although we've never yet played it to the point when we had houses and hotels ("settlements" and "cities" in this version). We end up just going around the board, collecting money and buying things like Republic Assault Cruisers and the Mos Espa spaceport and the like. Truth be told, I'm very certain that I have never -- not once -- seen a game of Monopoly through to its ultimate conclusion. I have a suspicion that Monopoly games never end so much as just stop by acclimation. (It also strikes me as odd that the Star Wars version of Monopoly still has the traditional "Jail" and "Free Parking" spaces. Seems to me that the game pieces should be sent directly to Detention Block AA-23 without collecting 200 Credits.)

Our favorite now is Sorry!. Here's a standard race-type game, but with wrinkles: you have four pieces, not one, to get all the way around the board; and there are ways built into the game in which you can put the screws to your opponents by bumping their pieces back to the start. Like CandyLand, pieces are moved according to the instructions on a deck of cards as you turn them over, but because the player is responsible for four pieces and because some cards allow things like backward movement, switching places with an opponent, and moving two pieces in the same turn, the game becomes one of strategy. And for a board game intended for ages six and above, Sorry! can get pretty damn riveting. It's not uncommon to see one player with all of his pieces progressing nicely around the board while another has three of his four pieces languishing in "Start" (which you can only exit by drawing a 1 or a 2 from the deck), and still see the latter player end up winning the game later on. If the game's life lesson -- "Hey, sometimes it's fun to screw the other guy!" -- is slightly questionable, well, who cares? It's all in fun, and the game almost always seems to balance out the karma.

Good old classic Checkers will probably be next, and then in a year or two, I'll attempt to teach The Daughter about Chess. And from there, I'll finally have to teach her Go -- but only after I learn it myself.

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